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Intercultural Dialogue

Israel's infatuation with Berlin

For many young Israelis, Berlin beckons with its free-spirited lifestyle and hot nightlife. While the Holocaust will never be forgotten, the present generation is packing their bags and moving on.

"The place to be - be Berlin." At the moment, Berlin is all over Tel Aviv. Whether visiting the Habima Theater, a local cinema, Jaffa Harbor, or on the steps of the central bus station, known locally as "White Elephant," posters calling attention to Berlin-themed events are plastered everywhere.

Until November 8, plays, films, art shows and even club nights with Berlin DJs will be part of the Berlin Dayz event, put on by the Goethe-Institut in Tel Aviv. It's a mammoth program that took a whole year to prepare, said the institute's director, 52-year-old Heike Friesel.

She's not surprised by the strong interest in the German capital. "You just have to write Berlin on it, and people will want to have it," she told DW.

Like siblings

Young people dance in an open-air setting, 
Photo: Felix Rettberg

Berlin Dayz, running through November 8, brings German culture to Tel Aviv

In fact, just about anything that has to do with Germany's capital seems to be hip in Israel's largest cities - particularly amongst the youth. It seems there's hardly anyone who doesn't have a friend or relative living there, or who hasn't at least visited the city once.

Many speak of Berlin districts like Friedrichshain or Prenzlauer Berg as if they were just around the corner. Roughly 18,000 Israelis live in Berlin, according to official statistics. And it's a group that's growing, just like the number of Israeli visitors to the capitol, which jumped 23 percent last year.

Interest in the German language is also growing. German courses at the Goethe-Institut in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are always well attended.

The reasons behind the enthusiasm are myriad. Berlin and Tel Aviv are like siblings, it's often said. Here, just like there, free spirits and creative types feel at home, with space enough for crackling business ideas and ill-conceived pipe dreams.

Both cities have the same vibe, "the same dynamic," as Juval describes it, enjoying a break from the dancing at Tel Aviv's hottest club, Block. It's there that, among others, DJ Marcel Dettmann is playing - one of many who, Heike Friesel said, "isn't very original, but is very popular." True then, that nightlife is at the core of both cities' identities.

Berlin means freedom

For many young Israelis, a visit to Berlin rids them of a burden that for Germans is somewhat foreign. Many Israelis flee societal expectations and the oppressive political situation there. For many in Israel, life seems to come in a pre-packaged script: school, army, marriage, then children at a relatively young age.

Two yougn men wearing t-shirts and carrying backpacks talk to a woman at a desk and sign papers, 
Photo: Felix Rettberg

Here, two Israelis sign up for German courses at the Goethe Institut in Tel Aviv

On top of that comes the religiously influenced day-to-day life - one that's difficult to avoid, even in secular Tel Aviv. Those who are critical or non-conformist don't have it easy.

That's why it was artists who first set up shop in Berlin. Since then, more academics have begun to arrive.

"What's great about Berlin is really the freedom," said Tal Shamia, a young scientist who has been working in Berlin regularly since 2001. In Germany in general, but particularly in Berlin, you can release yourself from Israeli expectations and forget about those problems, he added. "You only have to focus on yourself, having fun and discovering who you are."

The holocaust stops dividing

Many who go to Berlin are grandchildren or great-grandchildren of survivors of the Holocaust. Even into the 1990s, that was reason enough for many Israelis never to set foot on German soil.

That has changed. Today, the Holocaust seems to connect more often than it divides.

"These two countries are both dealing with the past and so they try to better understand each other," Tal said, adding that people differentiate history from the situation today. Personally, Tal says he sees Berlin for what it is: a free city cull open-minded people.

Juval goes a step further. "It's time to close that chapter," he said.

A modern, angular stone building is lit from below with an artistic light display, Photo: Felix Rettberg

As part of build-up to Berlin Dayz, the Habima Theater in Tel Aviv was lit up by Berlin artists

Goodbye Israel?

For Heike Friesel, such reactions are part of a two-sided coin. In no way should Israel be reduced to the Holocaust, she says. On the other hand, she has observed that, "with the younger generation, there's less and less in-depth knowledge about the Holocaust." It's been reduced, she says, to stereotypes.

That's an issue that has been well utilized by Israel's politicians. Most recently, Israeli Finance Minister Yair Laipid criticized his fellow Israelis for throwing away the only country Jews have because "living in Berlin is more comfortable." His words don't seem to have kept anyone away from Berlin.

"He doesn't know what he's talking about," said Tal Shamia. "If this country is not giving me what I need, there is no need for me to stay here."

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